Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Considering that no rock and roll records to speak of are released in the four weeks surrounding Christmas, this strikes me as a good month, although a little low on B plusses. Those who find significance in such things will no doubt be interested to note that my two favorites were both produced on small labels in the city of Memphis.


BLUE OYSTER CULT: Spectres (Columbia) Now that they've become a standard brand I can admit it to myself--their expertise and versatility leaves me slightly awed and completely unmoved. B [Later]

DEBBY BOONE: You Light Up My Life (Warner Bros.) Who cares if the single sells six million? It's only singles, y'know? Trendsetters don't buy singles. Smart people like you and me don't buy singles. But now I read that the album has gone platinum, too. And that means it's time to stop fucking around. Maybe if all of us turn in our copies they'll decertify it. Well, its worth a try, don't you think? D MINUS [Later: D]

JACKSON BROWNE: Running on Empty (Asylum) Jackson sounds relaxed--verbally, vocally, even instrumentally. He cuts his own meager melodies with nice ones by Danny O'Keefe and Danny Kortchmer. He does a funny and far from uncritical version of "Cocaine" and a loving and far from unfunny version of "Stay." I consider this his most attractive album, but then I've never liked him much. Some of his devotees may consider the self-effacement a deprivation. B PLUS [Later]

LEONARD COHEN: Death of a Ladies Man (Warner Bros.) The bad music here can't be blamed on Phil Spector's melodies--Cohen has never posed as a particularly tuneful guy himself. And the main thing wrong with Spector's settings, banal though they are, is that they lack doors. Ordinarily, Cohen whispers, murmurs, whines, croaks, and even screams through the music. Here he has to try and sing over it, using more or less normal volume and timbre. B MINUS [Later]

EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER: Works: Volume 2 (Atlantic) When the world's most overweening "progressive" group makes an album less pretentious than its title, galumphing respectfully through Scott Joplin and Meade Lux Lewis, that's news. But is it rock and roll? C PLUS

GEORGE FAITH: To Be a Lover (Mango) Those who bemoan the dearth of new soul artists may be pleased to discover this one. Deprived of a cultural context, perhaps, but when you got what it takes you hold on to what you got, right? Well, I don't know. Faith is a soft-song reggae stylist vaguely reminiscent of early Joe Simon or some small part of David Ruffin. He writes ordinary songs, executes a delightful segue from "In the Midnight Hour" to "Ya Ya," and lets you know why he loves "Turn Back the Hands of Time" and "So Fine" by covering Paul Anka's "Diana" along with them. All this plus genuine Jamaican stereo depth charges. B MINUS [Later]

STEVE GIBBONS BAND: Caught in the Act (MCA) Gibbons writes 'em and picks 'em with a sharp nose for the cliche--any asshole can do Berry and Dylan on the live album, but they won't risk unrecognized classics like "Tulane" and "Watching the River Flow," which is why they're assholes. Now if only I could convince myself that the world needs a young Bob Seger. B MINUS [Later: B+]

AL GREEN: The Belle Album (Hi) This is the most idiosyncratic LP in the top 200. Since 1975 Green has been making albums on which two or three real songs were supplemented by material so vague and unpredictable it almost announced itself as filler improvised in the studio--which is not to say that those of us who love him passionately didn't find much of it hypnotic. Now on a self-produced album focused around his own (frequently acoustic) guitar, the filler comes front and center with new assurance and perhaps even its own formal identity; the real songs themselves--his best in years--sound improvised in the studio. And more than ever, it all holds together around Green's agile rhythm, dynamics, and coloration and his obsession with the soul-body dualism at the heart of the genre he now rules unchallenged. A [Later]

LEVON HELM AND THE RCO ALL-STARS (ABC) Boogie. C PLUS

THE JAM: This Is the Modern World (Polydor) The naive, out-of-the-mouths-of-careerists clumsiness is endearing partly because it gets at truths too obvious to interest the sophisticated; the assumption that the word modern has sociopolitical import, for instance, is laughably autodidactic at one level and yet not without resonance when pounded out over and over. Would that the pounding were a little more flexible--this might rock as invitingly as their first if only it were varied with some appropriate covers. How about "Kicks"? B PLUS

BOB JAMES: Heads (Columbia/Tappan Zee) This was the number one jazz album in Record World not long ago, and I predict trouble. Already the people who put out those Environments nature soundscapes must be wondering why their records never make the list. D PLUS

MEAT LOAF: Bat out of Hell (Epic) Here's where the pimple comes to a head--if this isn't adolescent angst in its death throes, then Buddy Holly lived his sweet, unselfconscious life in vain. The lyrics offer wit amid heat and power (will "lyric-sheet verse" soon turn into the macho converse of "greeting-card verse"?) and the music pulls out the stops quite knowingly (will Phil Spector soon be remembered as the Rachmaninoff of rock and roll?). Occasionally it seems that horrified, contemptuous laughter is exactly the reaction this production team intends, and it's even possible that two percent of the audience will get the joke. But the basic effect is grotesquely grandiose. Bruce Springsteen, beware--this is what you've wrought, and it could happen to you. C MINUS

ROBERT JR. LOCKWOOD: Does 12 (Trix) Lovers of urban blues will cherish this record by Robert Johnson's self-designated heir. It even boasts some adventurously progressive saxophone and twelve-string stylings that do no violence to a notoriously intransigent genre. But Lockwood is an undistinguished vocal interpreter, and only one of his originals--the imperturbable "Selfish Ways"--is worthy of interpretation itself, and me, I merely appreciate urban blues, usually the vocal kind. B [Later]

PARLIAMENT: Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome (Casablanca) This seems like your representative 'delicment LP at first, featuring one irresistible and quite eccentric dance track, several dance tracks that are at moments even more eccentric (including one based on nursery rhymes), bits of inspired jive, bits of plain jive, and a slow one that doesn't work. Maybe if they made a perfect (even near-perfect) album they wouldn't be themselves anymore. But it would be nice to find out. B PLUS [Later: A]

JOHNNY PAYCHECK: Take This Job and Shove It (Epic) If this is proof that country is the real working-class music, then the only oppressor the working man knows is the woman whose pedestal he supports and the only right he demands is the right to cry in his beer. There's enough anomie, male bonding, and random violence on this record to inspire one cover story on whither outlaw and another on whither punk, and although it offers numerous insights, I wish I believed just a few of them were as intentional as the catchiness of the tunes. B MINUS

THE RESIDENTS: Fingerprince (Ralph) With its mechanized vocal sounds and displaced melodies, this is the kind of vanguardy post-pop pastiche Frank Zappa might be putting together if he were spiritually akin to Eno rather than to Flo & Eddie. Most of my informants prefer Meet the Residents or (especially) Third Reich 'n Roll, with its disrespectful but familiar quotes from the likes of "It's My Party" and "96 Tears," but I find this current album even more listenable--Another Green World with a chip on its shoulder, sort of. B PLUS [Later: B]

THE RUNAWAYS: Waitin' for the Night (Mercury) This band was a surprise at the Palladium, nowhere near as willing to pander sexually as its publicity suggests, and Kim Fowley contributes his first decent bit of melody since "Alley Oop" to the new album. I guess if somebody has to strike macho guitar poses I'd just as soon it were girls. But Joan Jett's inability to bellow through the wal of noise (she shrieks flatly instead) suggests that there are perhaps more generous musical models, for human beings of all sexes, than Aerosmith.C PLUS [Later]

THE SCRUFFS: "Wanna' Meet the Scruffs?" (Power Play) Only a sucker for rock and roll could love this record, and I am that sucker. A middle-period Beatles extrapolation in the manner of Big Star (another out-of-step Memphis power-pop group on a small, out-of-step Memphis label), it bursts with off harmonies, left hooks, and jolts of random energy. The trouble is, these serve a shamelessly and perhaps permanently post-adolescent vision of life's pain, most of which would appear to involve gurls. To which objection the rockin' formalist in me responds, "I wanna hear 'Revenge' again." A MINUS

JAN STEELE/JOHN CAGE: Voices and Instruments (Antilles) Produced by Eno for his own Obscure label and released in America by Island as part of its already defunct discount series, this hath charms to soothe the aging punk. It's rock only by association--Steele is aided by a "very quiet, repetitive" rock-improvisation ensemble called F & W Hat, while Cage makes use of the voice of Robert Wyatt, whose pataphysical charms have always eluded me. But if the idea of devotional music for secular people appeals to you, and if you find ECM "jazz" impressionistic and unstructured, keep your eye and/or ear out for this. A MINUS [Later: B+]

HANK WILLIAMS JR.: The New South (Warner Bros.) Dear Up-and-Comer: OK, pretty good for a country-rock album--more spirited than your second, less inspired than your first. But let me mention a few things. The Atlanta Braves are not, repeat not, ordinarily identified with the Old South. Rain gets to be a pretty tedious symbol of life's tribulations. The road gets to be a pretty tedious symbol of life's changes. And if you want to get away from Dad, well, I know it'd be a lot of trouble to change your name, but maybe you could do a whole album that doesn't refer to him at all. And you could stop doing his songs, too--it's bad luck that the best cut here is the one he wrote, now isn't it? I mean, you really could use a new exemplar. Good luck finding him or her. (Signed) Roll on, Dean. P.S. Not Waylon Jennings, either. B

Additional Consumer News

I wouldn't have believed that anything short of a death in the group could induce me to write about the S.P. for a fourth consecutive week, but neither would I have predicted how close they were willing to come. Since Mr. Vicious did not actually kick the bucket, some now claim that there was no reason to hospitalize the comatose punk in the first place, and should Mr. Rotten reconsider his decision to put the quietus on the S.P., the smart media boys will no doubt conclude that the breakup was all, how do they put it, hype. This media boy disagrees. Every intelligent observer has perceived that the S.P. were engaged in an insupportable contradiction--that inevitably and ineluctably, antistars must turn into stars. Rotten's naive defiance of this contradiction was one reason he remained such a commanding presence. It's no surprise, however, that his defiance didn't survive even a dinky and eccentric--but, on his own antistar terms, reasonably triumphant--American tour. America really does rub your face in it. People at Warners seem to believe that the group can be brought together again, but I'm not dying for that to happen. Metaphorically, a meteoric rise and equally celestial disappearance is the perfect confrontation between an instinctive anarchist and an implacably rational system. Perhaps more earthbound punks, rather than being inspired to capitulate, will learn something about how powerful the system they hope to beat or bypass really is. Of course, if the S.P. should regroup, that'll be okay with me as well, assuming the music remains powerful, which I believe it can. Any group that plans to play Brazil with a survivor of Britain's Great Train Robbery as impresario (and--reading his own poetry--opening act), which was the scheme Rotten's decision forestalled, has a few tricks left. I both hope and predict, however, that Mr. Vicious will find some other outlet for his energies than the bass guitar. It is generally agreed that he's the one who couldn't handle stardom--or antistardom either. . . .

The American Cancer Society is now broadcasting a doowop version of its favorite passages of English prose: "The Surgeon General (doo-wah)/Has determined (doo-way)," and so forth. I don't think this is a good idea; it's bound to give people the impression that cancer is something to get nostalgic about (Old Golds as golden oldies?), and we haven't gotten to that point yet--although we may, viruses being what they are.

Village Voice, Jan. 30, 1978


Dec. 26, 1977 Mar. 27, 1978